Back from the summer house where the sun doesn’t set at midsummer. Where the mosquitoes are almost as big as butterflies. Where there is a drawer full of photographs and postcards from Liverpool and New York and California. Hundreds of frozen faces, the relatives and friends of relatives who emigrated two generations ago.
When my grandmother was young they used to pack down their whole house in the spring and move out to the summerhouse. I think they even moved the piano, but I might have made that up. When my dad was young my grandparents crammed their children, cats and dog into a small car in June and drove for three hours to get to there, stopping occasionally to allow the children to vomit from car sickness. They stayed at the summerhouse until autumn came and it was time to go back to work and school. During one of these summers they picked up a tame crow. Another summer my grandmother adopted two aggressive turkeys that nipped at the feet of those who went out for a nightly pee.
The place is heavy with memories and stories. Every summer the house calls us back and we retell some and add some more.
There is a rowan tree by the shore. An ant hill next to the car park and another one near the wood shed. There is a big pine against which my brother and I practiced throwing knives one summer when we couldn’t come up with anything else to do. If I close my eyes I can see the path running from the house to the shore, the one going behind the small red hut which is rotting away and needs a new roof. I can see the rose bushes, the blueberries, the trees and the paper mill on the other side of the bay. I know the place and it knows me. There are roots from the soles of my feet that go deep into the ground. At the summerhouse I’m part of something bigger. I’m part of a past and a story.
We went to the summerhouse for a week and now we’re back. I’m raging against London sounds and pollution. But I’m here, back home. Missing home.
Last week Gerry and I packed our small car full of art and drove to Bristol. He was exhibiting at The Other Art Fair. I tagged along, excited because art fairs can be a lot of fun and because we were going to stay on a narrowboat.
It’s always been a dream of mine to live on a narrowboat. It’s one of those impossible, impractical dreams. In my mind it would mean a bohemian and free sort of life. Camp fires, black cats and people playing the guitar. Never settling, going from one canal to the next, surviving alongside nature, making my own soap and foraging for nettles and blackberries. I think about the freedom of off-the-grid life and the money that could be saved. You can buy a narrowboat for around £40,000 and then you have a home. There are mooring fees, but there would be no big mortgage and no rent.
I’ve done my research. Real life living on a narrowboat also means cold winter nights. Pumping out the toilet. Making sure you never run out of water and electricity. Struggling to get an address. Paying expensive mooring fees. And then there is the fear, but more about that later.
Our little narrowboat in Bristol was lovely. It ticked all those bohemian boxes. A guitar on the wall, books crammed into every nook and cranny, a half empty bottle of rum on top of the fridge. A gentle rocking made it easy to fall asleep. I felt cradled by the water. I didn’t mind the occasional smelly waft from the composting toilet. I have after all spent many holidays at my family’s rural summerhouse in Finland where, for a long time, the only loo was a composting toilet in the garden.
The second night on the boat was different. At around four in the morning I woke up and realised someone was walking on top of the boat. Heavy, slow and deliberate footsteps. Not jumping, drunken footsteps, no cheering and laughing from mates on the shore. I was wide awake and nervy. I have watched too many scary movies in my youth. I can be quite neurotic at the best of times. The only thing I could think about was the thin glass door with its flimsy lock. The fact that there were only a few boats around ours and not many other people nearby. What if a serial killer/a robber/a mad person broke into the boat? What would I do?
I spent the rest of the night trying to figure out the best way to fight off an intruder. In the end I decided that screaming really loudly and setting off the incredibly noisy gas alarm might do the trick. I also decided that if I owned a narrowboat I would buy one of those realistic plastic guns that shoot small plastic bullets. Boatlife seems a lot less romantic now.